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Teaching in English is not about politics but quality

When the University of Tokyo announced that, starting this autumn, its first undergraduate degree programmes would be taught entirely in English, this was a major breakthrough for the institution – but did not raise much concern or debate. The university follows in the footsteps of several other Asian universities, in particular from South Korea, Taiwan and mainland China.

In comparison, when the rector of the Polytechnic University of Milan announced in spring that, as of 2014, all of its graduate programmes would be taught in English, there was widespread protest from politicians, the media and academics.

Words such as "illegitimate" and "unconstitutional" were used and the move was seen as "a threat to Italian culture and language".

The difference in reaction to the spread of teaching in English in Asia and in Italy is remarkable.

In Asia there seems to be a more pragmatic approach to the issue, along the lines of: "English is the current common language of communication in both research and teaching and if we want to stay connected to the rest of the world, we had better make use of that reality."

In Italy it is more a political issue, although there were clear pragmatic motivations behind the university's decision: “We are proud of our Italian roots, which we consider an added value for all foreign students deciding to complete education in our university,” Rector Giovanni Azzone said.

“Nevertheless, as a technical-scientific university, we cannot underestimate the international context.”

And Roberto Maffei, president of the PhD students association, said: "What is the point of publishing research in a language that no-one else can read? We need to communicate not only with native English speakers, but also with Turks, Iranians, Chinese.”

Déjà vu

The negative reactions in Italy to the decision of the rector of the Polytechnic University of Milan gave me a feeling of déjà vu.

In the early 1990s, several universities in The Netherlands, including the University of Amsterdam – where at that time I was responsible for internationalisation – started to teach courses and full degree programmes in English, primarily at graduate level, but in some specific cases also at the undergraduate level.

When the rector of the University of Amsterdam announced that 20% of its courses would be taught in English, and around the same time in a television interview the minister of education – at the time Jo Ritzen, who later as president of Maastricht University was responsible for transforming it into a bilingual university – said higher education should increasingly be taught in English, the reaction was similar to the current one in Italy.

National and international media and politicians decried the abolition of Dutch as a language of teaching and said this would endanger the Dutch language and culture. The Dutch parliament, in a unanimous vote, demanded that the minister limit teaching in English to a small number of exceptional cases.

Not only is the similarity striking between the arguments in the Dutch case at that time and currently in Italy, but in both cases the original proposals (20% of courses, only graduate programmes) were blown up to look as if they embraced ‘all programmes’ or ‘all higher education’.

By the end of the 1990s most universities in The Netherlands had found ways to make the exception the rule and teaching in English has become, in particular at the graduate level, a quite common phenomenon, as is the case in Scandinavia and increasingly in other continental European countries, including Germany and France.

The media and politicians seem to have not only accepted but even endorsed this development.

Academic quality concerns

But this does not mean that the move towards more teaching in English around the world is total. The debate in Northern Europe has moved from a political one to an academic one: the need for a more qualitative policy on teaching in English.

Two recent articles address this change. Annette Bradford, in a recent article in International Higher Education titled “Challenges in Adopting English-Taught Degree Programmes”, talks about linguistic concerns:

“The quality of teaching and learning that occurs when instructors and-or students are working in a non-native language”. There are cultural challenges: “Lack of intercultural knowledge important for developing internationalised curricula, adopting more inclusive practices, and promoting reciprocal cultural understanding”.

And structural challenges: “In addition to finding faculty to teach in the programmes, any institution adopting English-medium instruction must also extend its administration and support services to cater to a new heterogeneous student and faculty body in English”.

And Aisha Labi in The Chronicle of Higher Education, in an article entitled “Europe’s Push to Teach in English Creates Barriers in the Classroom”, published in February 2011, cited Associate Professor Karen Lauridsen at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences stating:

“It has become apparent that teaching difficulties are not simply a question of language but are rooted in profound cultural differences.” She continued that even universities in Britain “need to address the fact that they can’t just teach in English the way they teach native speakers”.

The issue of teaching in English has become a serious academic quality issue for all universities, whatever their mother language is. An increasingly diverse faculty and student population in the classroom demands that universities address the academic issues related to teaching in English.

That is a different and more relevant challenge than the political one that seems to dominate the debate in Italy.

Teaching in English is not synonymous with internationalisation but only one of several instruments related to it. But if that instrument is being used we need to address the quality concerns that are related to it.

Universities should think more strategically about when, where, how and why they should transfer programmes from being taught in their mother language into English (or any other second language).

That makes more sense than just setting quantitative targets such as ‘all graduate programmes’, and can lead to other strategies. I recently learned, for instance, that the University of Coimbra in Portugal had decided to focus its policy on the role of Portuguese language, history and culture in the world and not on teaching in English.

In other words, even though the pragmatic approach followed by Asian universities towards teaching in English seems to make more sense than the political debate in Italy, Asia and English-speaking countries can learn from the experiences in Northern Europe that teaching in a language other than the mother tongue is more than just a political and-or language issue and requires major attention to the academic quality of the offer, and also requires a strategic decision on where, when, how and why it is being used.

* Hans de Wit is director of the Centre for Higher Education Internationalisation at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan, and professor of internationalisation at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Email: J.w.m.de.wit@hva.nl.
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